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Listeria Cantaloupe Outbreak Tied to Flawed Safety Practice
Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- A listeria outbreak that killed 30 people and sickened another 146 may have been avoided if a Colorado cantaloupe processor had followed U.S. guidelines and washed the fruit in chlorinated water, a congressional investigation found.
Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, also added new processing equipment that may have led to contamination, according to the report issued today by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees produce, doesn’t have specific regulations for cantaloupe processing and offers only guidance, though it can request the U.S. Justice Department issue an injunction to shut a facility. The agency also doesn’t regulate auditors farms hire to certify that their operations comply with good safety practices.
While the panel report makes no specific recommendations, “reforms in third party audits are essential,” committee Democrats wrote in a letter today to the FDA. Auditors are hired by grocers, processors and others to ensure best practices are used to ensure food is safe.
“Weakness in third-party auditors represent a significant gap in the food-safety system because the auditors are often the only entities to inspect a farm or facility,” according to the letter, signed by Representative Henry Waxman of California, the committee’s senior Democrat, and three other lawmakers.
Jensen Farms was graded by an independent auditor as having “superior” safety practices just one month before consumers became ill from eating the fruit.
Representatives of Jensen Farms didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, is among grocers facing lawsuits claiming they sold contaminated cantaloupe. Costco Wholesale Corp. is developing new safety protocols as a result. The outbreak occurred in September and October.
“It’s unfortunate that victims and their families weren’t involved in the congressional committee’s investigation,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer who represents clients in the Jensen Farms case, in an interview.
“There’s really nothing new that’s added,” said Marler, referring to the report. “It’s basically what the FDA already found.”
Widespread contamination and unsanitary practices were found at a packing facility owned by the company, the FDA said in an Oct. 18 warning letter.
“FDA officials stated that the outbreak could likely have been prevented if Jensen Farms had maintained its facilities in accordance with exiting FDA guidance,” according to the House panel’s report.
The letter to the FDA calling for audit oversight was also signed by Diana DeGette of Colorado, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and John Dingell of Michigan.